“Oh wait! Are you Jewish?”
This was said to me in a lecture that I sat in on at the Jewish Studies Institute in Heidelberg. The lecture was in German and I had been doing my best, aided by Google Translate, to follow along. It also helped that it was on the Crusades and Jewish lamentations and accounts of this time period – a subject I have studied and that I teach. I had just written in my notes a minute before “I wish I could speak in English (or German)! I have sooo much to add to this discussion.” I had been told I was welcome to participate but “We will be speaking German.” I wasn’t sure if that meant I had to participate in German only, but that was what I took it to mean. Finally, unable to stand their “I wonder…” or “I know that Judaism says X so I am not sure why they would do Y…” statements anymore, I raised my hand and said “Can I speak in English, I can answer some of these questions.” As I explained Jewish concepts of dying Kiddush HaShem (for the glory of God – or as a martyr) and why in a religion where preserving life was the highest value dying for God (versus conversion at sword point) was also a highly religious act, one of the students turned and said those words “Oh wait! Are you Jewish?” They were thrilled to have an actual Jewish person in the lecture to explain from a more personal and less academic viewpoint how Judaism actually felt about these topics. I also discussed their comparisons to Masada and the three commandments that you cannot break and must choose death if those are your options. The concept of “Whose blood is redder,” meaning whose life is worth more, was also discussed and the idea that we cannot know whose life is really more valuable, ours or someone else’s, and therefore are not allowed to choose between our life and theirs. In the end they were very grateful for my additions in English and for the ability to discuss these topics with a Jewish person.
For many of the students to whom I spoke during my two weeks in Eppingen, Sinsheim and Heilbronn, I was likely the first Jewish person that they had met in person. Certainly the first that they had spoken to and could ask questions about Judaism. For some, not only was I the first Jewish person they had met, they were learning about a chapter of history they had not previously known existed from this Jewish person. Teaching German teenagers about Jewish resistance and the rescue of Jews by non-Jews during the Holocaust was a heavy task. But they were very serious and many were visibly impacted by the stories I shared. One teacher, who had watched my keynote speech from Australia in 2019 (https://youtu.be/ZdXbdRucP78), asked for me to teach about William Cooper, an Aboriginal man who protested to the German Consulate in 1938 about the treatment of Jews in Germany on ReichspogromNacht (Kristallnacht). As I told these young people about a man, who was not considered a human in his own land, who took the time to protest about the treatment of Jews in Europe, they were gobsmacked. This message of the brave acts of Upstanders and the difference that one person can make resonated not only with the students but with the teachers. I have heard since my return that my call to be Upstanders was invoked in a staff meeting to encourage admin and faculty to make a united stance against expressions of hate in the school.
One of my favorite lessons was with a class at Selma-Rosenfeld- Realschule – a school named for one of the Jewish residents of Eppingen prior to the Holocaust. Her family’s home and bar still stand – I spoke there to a group of Jewish Heritage supporters. The class at this school was a Religious Education class of 6th graders. The teacher had a set of Jewish religious items and I brought along a few others. She had placed them out and covered them. The idea was the kids would uncover them one by one and I would explain them. At the end they were going to play dreidel. The class had great questions and shared what they did know about more common items like a Hanukkiah (menorah for Hanukkah). I then showed them how to play dreidel and handed out dreidels and “gelt” (fruit chews rather than chocolates) for them to bet with. I have never seen a group of young people have so much fun playing dreidel! This was also the class where I spoke the most German as their English was less advanced than other groups. It was a really nice experience all around and their first experience of Judaism was positive and fun.
Judaism teaches that we are all responsible for how our “people” are seen by others and that the missteps of one of us become seen as the missteps of us all. As a historically maligned and scapegoated group, this is very true and is not true just for Jews. Other marginalized groups have the same burden and experience. That said, I would like to think that I did my best to make sure that the students to whom I spoke took away a positive outlook of both Judaism – the religion – and individual Jews as well. That they will keep in mind the examples of Jan Korczak who would not leave his orphans even to save his own life, the Bielskis and other partisans who fought back and saved Jewish lives when they think about the history of the Nazis and the behavior of Jews under that oppression. I hope that when they think of the Jewish religion that they will remember my answer to what my favorite thing about being Jewish is – “I love that my religion demands that I be a better person each year. That it is not just a suggestion but that there is a time of the year for specifically working on this. For thinking back over the year and seeing where I went wrong and to think about how I could have done better and to resolve to do so in the coming year.” Again, the expressions on the faces of the students as I explained this were telling and they were clearly not expecting this answer and were moved by it.
Every small village or town that I went to during my two plus weeks in Germany had an “alte Synagog” or a plaque showing where the synagogue had stood until it was destroyed on 9-10 November 1938. Every one. In a couple places we found these reminders accidentally as we wandered around looking for the right street and found ourselves on what was clearly the RIGHT street for that moment. But that said, they did not have Jews. Alan mentioned the one or two Jewish students he has had over the years he has taught in this area. When I asked “for what percentage of those kids was I the first Jewish person they had ever met?” His answer was “I suppose easily 90 percent of the kids…but I can really only guess.” Each class I spoke to had been told that I was a “Jewish teacher from Seattle WA” but even then some were not clear that I myself am Jewish. Perhaps I only taught about Jewish things – like the professor in Heidelberg. In Eppingen there are several places of Jewish interest and I was the “tour guide” at one for the first ever Wir Juden Tag – which was more like Ich Jude Tag as I was the only Jewish person involved. As such, I was asked to speak at the medieval Mikveh (ritual bath) in town. The organizers figured I was the only person who would have used a Mikveh, so best to have me speak about it.
With Alan by my side to translate, we waited for visitors. Our first visitor was a reporter who ended up spending most of the day with us and writing an article about the Jewish life in Eppingen and my visit there. We also ended up on KraichgauTV in their weekly spotlight on life in Eppingen. (https://youtu.be/maw0rnFpLu0 – most of it is in German) Again people were excited to find out that I am Jewish and to hear me speak about the role of a mikveh in a Jewish community and what comprised a visit to the mikveh for a woman. We talked about how much different it would have been in this 500 or so year old stone mikveh versus in a modern one. I told the story about a woman in Jerusalem wanting to get married, but by a Masorti Rabbi not an Orthodox one, and being turned away from multiple Mikvaot for not having the right document. (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/2015/12/23/turned-away-from-mikvah/) Each group that stopped by was sincerely interested in the Mikveh, its history, the Jewish history of the town and my presence on this day to tell them about family purity and how the Mikveh was often the first communal structure built in a new Jewish community.
Over and over my presence was taken as representative of the Jewish people written large. It was not the first time in my travels, which often take me to places where Jewish life used to be vibrant and well established but no no longer exists, that this was the case. “Ona jest Żyd?!?” still echoes in my ears from Warsaw in 2018. Anywhere this would have been an awesome responsibility, in Germany it was a heavy one as well. I try to make clear that there are many ways to be Jewish and will talk about my pluralistic school and the breadth of Jewish learning and practice I teach. I focus on the positive and share the universalistic, as well as proudly explaining the particularistic. Like to the young man who asked about my views on Jesus and wanted to clarify that I did not consider Jesus to be the son of God. My gentle “No. That would make me a Christian, not a Jew” was perhaps a more logical answer than he expected. Seeing the number of non-Jews living in these places working hard to make sure that the Jewish history of their village or town is not forgotten is heartwarming, even if it comes across a bit awkward. “Wir Juden Tag” translates as “We/Us Jews Day”. The idea for this day nationally was started by a Jewish man wanting to combat antisemitism while celebrating Jewish life in modern Germany – and in places where there is a reborn Jewish presence and community, this name makes perfect sense. Groups in areas without a current Jewish community chose to participate and focus on the Jewish heritage of their towns. In the TV piece, Michael Heitz speaks of the importance of remembering the lives and way of life of those Jews who lived in the area, not just remembering how Jewish life came to an end, and this is really the point. Perhaps there the “We Jews” of the name for the day is more likely to evoke the voices of the Jews who once lived there. Using my voice, with my visit, speaking to these young people, as well as to the adults, I am able to show that vibrant Jewish life continues, and helps them to have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what was and what could be. L’chaim.